‘God is faithful. By him you were called into the fellowship of his son, Jesus Christ the Lord’ (I Cor. 1:9)
“I couldn’t do the job you do!” said the electrician who was working in the Rectory last week. “After all, I don’t have any faith”. I decided not to point out that I couldn’t do his job either – I once had to call in an electrician to change a light bulb – but we did have a short conversation about faith.
So many people say something similar yet don’t reflect on the way life without faith is impossible. We need faith in others to enable relationships to flourish, and without those, where would we be?
For the next three weeks I want to reflect on subjects at the heart of Christianity – Faith, Forgiveness and Prayer. Firstly the question of Faith and how it affects the way we live.
Faith, belief and trust.
I think my electrician was getting confused between faith and belief. He probably meant that he didn’t believe in God and we could have had an interesting conversation about God and belief.
But I wanted him to finish his job! There are, of course, a number of concepts which are closely related to faith and belief – trust and hope, for example – and often these terms understandably become confused. In his classic book, ‘Stages of Faith’, James Fowler quotes the following lines: ‘Faith … is a quality of human living. At it’s best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen … Men and women of this kind of faith face catastrophe and confusion, affluence and sorrow, unperturbed; face opportunity with conviction and drive, and face others with cheerful charity’ (W. C. Smith).
Now I guess many of us would like that kind of faith!
It has always been recognised that Faith is a gift for which we should pray. For example, the apostles said to Jesus, ‘Increase our faith!’ and he replies: ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.’
So faith is something that needs to grow and develop within us. The trouble is that many grow up without the foundations which enable faith to develop. As children we need to have faith in our parents and such faith is rooted in a belief that the parent cares for the child and that they can trust what they say and do. If that is undermined, faith in them is weakened if not destroyed.
However, parents are not infallible. Some of what the child learns from them will be wrong, and some will be rejected. It’s normal for the child to trust the parent in the absence of other sources of information, but that doesn’t mean they should cling rigidly to everything they were originally taught in the face of contradictory evidence. Which is why adults and parents need the gift of wisdom to know how to respond to children’s developmental explorations.
GROWING IN FAITH
How, then, can we grow in faith? Well, firstly, we need to recognise the difference between belief, trust and faith.
To say one believes in something does not mean anything other than acknowledging its existence.
“I believe there is a train to London at 9 o’clock” can only be confirmed if the train arrives at 9 o’clock. Or to say, “I believe Persil washes whiter than Bold” means nothing until you try it out. Similarly, to say “I believe in God” means nothing until you begin to enter into a relationship with God and try to understand something of who God is. Then you need to act upon that understanding. Indeed, it has been rightly said that if you want your faith to grow, live as if you had faith!
Now I may believe Persil washes whiter than Bold but it’s only when I entrust my clothes to the washing process that I will know if it’s true.
I might have a profound belief in my parent’s authority, for example, but if I don’t trust them, that belief may be borne out of fear.
The American author Robert Kiyasaki once wrote of the way he came to understand that there are many people who believe in something, but it was before and during the life threatening missions he flew in Vietnam that he really came to understand trust. He explains it this way:
‘It's easy to believe in something and just do lip service to it. Lip service will only go so far when things become difficult and your belief is pushed to the limit. When we only believe in something it's easy to jump ship and go on to the next best thing to believe in.
Trust on the other hand is something that will go into the battle with you. When you truly trust in a Creator, your ability, your vision, the people you need to count on, then there comes with that trust a sense of peace in making the right choice.’
“Can I trust you?” is a fundamental relational question. Once we have sensed that we can then we can move on from trust to faith. Trust is, if you like, the bedrock on which a dynamic faith can be built, for faith enables action. I may believe that people don’t drown when they dive into a swimming pool and I may trust people who say I will float, but I need faith to make my own step into the water!
I may believe Persil washes whitest and trust what I am told about the product, but I need faith to place my best linen tablecloth in the wash!
Yet Faith isn’t a commodity we can get off the shelves. It is about the way we act, the devotion we nurture and the way we dedicate ourselves. And it will, at times, be full of emotion.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word used for faith is also used to describe the covenant of marriage, and what lies at the root of the relationship between husband and wife. As a gift of the Holy Spirit, faith needs nurturing if it is to grow, otherwise it will be like that gift buried in the ground we heard about in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents a couple of weeks ago.
In the Letter of St. James the author addresses this problem: ‘You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.’
So he argues that faith without action is a dead thing: ‘What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?
In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.’
“I wish I had faith like yours!” Well, if someone says that to you, ask them if they have ever prayed for the gift of faith and, if they have, whether they have then acted as if they had received the gift?
It isn’t a matter of having a ‘blind’ faith, an optimistic attitude to life or ignoring the problems and pains with which we are surrounded. It is rooted in a belief in a God who is faithful to us. As St. Paul said: ‘God is faithful. By him you were called into the fellowship of his son, Jesus Christ the Lord’.
So it is as we seek to develop in that relationship with God that our faith grows. If our relationship with God is weak, then faith will suffer. And that in which we ultimately have faith will shape who we are becoming.
So for thousands of year’s men and women, in seeking to grow in faith, have turned their gaze upon God, believing that they are held in his loving gaze. And in so doing they have come into a new relationship with themselves and the world around them. Of all the books in the Bible that speak about Faith it is in the psalms that we find how people have realised this gift:
Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
… For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light. (Ps. 36)
Faith, together with Hope and Love, is one of the ‘Theological Virtues’ as taught by St. Paul. They are acquired virtues, to be sought by prayer, for they reside in God. There are many prayers seeking this gift, but one of the most beautiful was written by St. Francis. So l will leave you with his supplication:
Most High and glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of our hearts
and give us a true faith, a certain hope
and a perfect love.
Give us a sense of the divine
and knowledge of yourself,
so that we may do everything
in fulfilment of your holy will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.